Captain’s Log August 23, 2013 – Cape Breton and the Bra D’or Lake


August 23, 2013

Cape Breton Island: We left Halifax after a lovely 12 day visit bound for St. Peters, a tiny village 175 miles north of Halifax. Our trip north was very pleasant with 4 ft. ocean rollers on our starboard quarter, sunny, and lovely. Our trip took twenty hours, but when morning came we found ourselves in thick fog. We followed the buoys toward the lock that would raise us 5 feet or so into the Bras d’Or Lake (pronounced bra door). We could see about twenty feet or so, just enough to see a sailboat headed right for our port side. I swerved, he swerved and we prevented a “T” bone, but it was close.

Nova Scotia is made up of a peninsula (the Bluenose Peninsula) that is attached to New Brunswick, and an island to the north, Cape Breton Island. The island has within it a very large lake that experiences tides, but to a lesser degree than the surrounding ocean. The lakeshore is sparsely populated, with a few villages dotting the shoreline every so often. The land here looks very much like Scotland, with moors, highlands, and lochs. The once hard edges of the mountains have been worn to gentle curves by bygone glaciers, and lochs are filled with water partially blocked from the ocean. After passing through the St. Peters lock at the southeastern end of the island, we came to the village of St. Peters and, to our surprise, our old boat Odyssey. We had a wonderful time with Don and Nancy who now own her, and enjoyed a world class vegan blueberry pancake breakfast a ’la Rebecca!

The Great Bra d’Or Lake is very irregular in shape, with a large central body about 15 miles across, with many fingers, coves, and small fjords jutting out to form parallel bodies of water. On the northwest side, off on a little finger lies Baddeck, a town made famous by Alexander Graham Bell. Mr. Bell and his wife Mabel summered here for most of their adult life. Baddeck has a Bell Museum devoted almost entirely to his life after inventing the phone; as a matter of fact it is devoid of anything about the telephone. Mr. Bell experimented with all sorts of things including airplanes, various types of kites built of honeycombed fabric cells, and a hydrofoil that could apparently travel over water at very high speed. Aside from pursuing his post-telephone inventions, Mr. and Mrs. Bell were also known by the locals to be occasional nudists.

We arrived in Baddeck on a sunny afternoon and anchored in Indian Cove a few miles south of the town. Here we met up with our cruising friends on other Nordhavns, Milt and Judy Baker on Bluewater, Atlee Moe and Kristina Tyrre on SummerStar, and Bradley Rosenberg and Kathy Clark on ShearMadness. On our second night in town, we all got together for a dinner party on ShearMadness.

The next day Heidi Salter and Don Ferris, our friends from Ann Arbor, came for a visit. They rented a car in Halifax and drove to Baddeck, six hours away. After one day to reconnoiter the town and its limited shopping possibilities, we all piled in the car for a day of driving the Cabot Trail. The Cabot Trail is a World Heritage site, and circumnavigates the Cape Bretton Peninsula. It is a spectacular drive, first through beautiful mountainous spruce forests, the famous Margaree River Valley, home to some of the best salmon and trout fishing in the world, the highland area with fantastic sea and cliff vistas, then the French speaking area of Chiticamp with their famous hooked rugs, prominent St. Peters Catholic Church, and wonderful French Bakery. Then we drove to the tip of the peninsula with its spectacular view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then down the more restrained eastern side of the peninsula past Dingwall (a tiny little place with a beautiful narrow harbor) and Ingonish with a very big bay and world renowned resort and golf course. Finally we passed the Celtic College at St. Andrews and reached Baddeck. It was a wonderful day.

One day we drove to Louisbourg, a reconstructed 18 century French fort. The fort was left in ruins by the British when they defeated the French in 1766. In 1975 the Canadians funded an archeological study of the site and unearthed the foundations of a large number of buildings. Overtime they later searched for and found the original architectural plans in Paris, and then reconstructed the fortress as it existed three centuries ago. Students are hired during the tourist season to acts as inhabitants and dressed in period garb and perform street reenactments of period society. They have a period restaurant and the food is quite good.

In its heyday Louisbourg was inhabited by over 3,000 people and a major seaport. Like the British, the French merchant sailing fleeting left Europe bound for its colonies in Africa in the late Winter, there to trade goods for slaves (which were presold to brokers in the western hemisphere). Off the African coast they would catch the trade winds near the Cape Verde Islands and cross the Atlantic. After offloading the slaves, the ships would be cleaned and refilled with goods from French Guyana, the Caribbean or American ports and they would catch the Gulf Stream and the South-easterlies and head north before the Hurricane season, there to trade with their Canadian colonies for cod. Codfish have low oil content and can be dried, salted, and stored in barrels and then reconstituted with water when desired. Over a period of 500 years, hundreds of millions of tons of cod were taken from the North Atlantic and sold all over Europe as a protein staple. The ships returned to Europe using the Gulf Stream and the North-westerly winds that blew later in the year. We were told by the tour guide that codfish weighing 400 lbs. were common, and that the fish drying tables covered hundreds of acres around Louisbourg. In its heyday the now empty harbor was crowded of ships.

During one of our evenings in Baddeck we attended the Ceilidh (pronounced gaily), or “visit” in Gallic. This area of Nova Scotia was inhabited by Scots and Irish and the current generation is trying very hard to maintain the culture, which includes Highland Scots fiddle music and step dancing. There is a local Gallic college, which includes instruction in the Gallic language as well as step dancing, fiddle, and folk music. Of course there is a “Highland Scots” whiskey distillery not far from here too.

With Heidi and Don’s departure we set off for Newfoundland, however we didn’t make it very far before a key piece of equipment failed. We returned to Baddeck and awaited our fate. As luck would have it, there was a technician just 50 miles north of Baddeck in the town of North Sydney. After almost two weeks of horsing around and sending our whole 48 lb. unit back to Seattle for repair (four trips through customs) we got it back in good working order, but we were $800 lighter due to the fine print in the warranty (such as Furuno doesn’t pay for shipping to their facility or the travel time of technicians).

In the meantime we had several really interesting and lovely experiences. Our Nordhavn friends on SummerStar and ShearMadness were still in Baddeck, so we had several nice dinners with them. We also met a most fascinating couple, Rob and Tish Hempstead. Rob (age 87) holds an Unlimited Masters License (any ship of any size on any ocean or sea) and still captains vessels on a consulting basis. Tish holds a First Mates License, and the two of them work together as a team (along with their cat Tubby, whom Rob characterizes as a typical American). Rob has over two million sea miles, and knows more about commanding a vessel than anyone I have ever met or could imagine meeting. I sat for hours asking him questions, learning, and evaluating my own knowledge and ARGO’s equipment and sea worthiness. Rob and Tish came over for a tour of ARGO, and we toured their boat, Kittywake (a small sea bird). Kittywake is a steel hulled small ship similar in many important ways to ARGO. Rob designed her, and she looks like a ship that he might have commanded during his long career, which among other things included a tour aboard the USS Missouri during WWII.

When it looked like our NavNet3D might be coming back from the hospital, we decided to move north to the town of Sydney using our backup system so that we could get a one day start on our trip to Newfoundland (people up here pronounce it Newfoundland). We docked at the Dobson Yacht Club across the bay from the town center. We spent four days at their new dock, and met some of the friendliest and kindest people that we have had the pleasure of meeting. Lenny Burke lent us his car or drove us around personally so that we could see the area and refresh our food stores. He told us a lot about the area, and about his experience in the Canadian Navy. He too served aboard the USS Missouri during the Gulf War on a ship’s personnel exchange. As it turns out the Canadian sailors are allowed to drink alcohol aboard ship when off duty. They even have beer machines on their ships, so U.S. Navy sailors are keen to participate in crew exchanges when they become available. Lenny was a cook, so a USS Missouri cook was glad to do a week on his submarine.

Sydney typifies what has happened to the people in this part of Canada. For 500 years people made a good living by fishing for cod. Many other types of fish were also taken off the Georges Bank, the Flemish Cap and the waters off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Cod was caught with a jig: a hook (now a treble hook) tied to a weight and lowered to about 2 feet above the bottom. The fisherman moves the hook up and down (jigging) for a few minutes until a fish is caught. Cod will bight a hook without any bait on it. Who could ask for more? The perfect fish!

Things worked well for 500 years. Then the Scots invented the factory ship in 1952: these ships used nets to swallow anything in their path. They kept what they wanted, processed it into frozen fish filets, and dumped everything else overboard. Once the Scots starting using these ships, it wasn’t long before the Russians, Norwegians, Japanese and everyone else got in the game. Each year the amount of the catch increased as more ships came on line; in 1972 the peak catch of 810,000 tons of fish was taken. At this point people became concerned that this fabulous resource was going to be depleted, so the Canadian Government via the United Nations stepped in and asserted a 200 mile Economic Interest Zone. At that point all foreign ships left the Georges Bank. However, what should have been good news for the cod, turned perversely in the other direction. The Canadian Government studied the situation and decided to replace all the foreign fishing ships with Canadian ships, and allowed an 800,000 ton limit. Shipyards in Nova Scotia were humming and fishermen were happy. (That should have been a clue: When is a fisherman ever happy?) After a few years the fish catch began to decline; first to 500,000 tons, then 110,000 tons, then not enough fish to warrant the expense of fishing. Then the Canadian Government acted and closed the fishery. For 500 years the Georges Bank fed the world. Today there is virtually no fishing industry here. Man in all his greed and stupidity has fished out the North Atlantic!

To further illustrate the point, I asked a 40 year old business man I met about the fishing industry in the area and whether or not the fish will come back. He said that no one thinks the fish will rebound. He told me that he grew up in LaPoile, NFLD, and suggested that we visit there as it is one of a few traditional villages on the south coast left where there are no cars and those that remain fish by hand as in the old days. He told me that as a high school kid he and his friends would fish professionally for cod. He told me he made $92,000 one summer, and the man standing next to him said he made over $80,000. Is it any wonder that the fish have been devastated?

If that isn’t enough to make you sick, on top of that is the collapse of the steel and mining industries. A large steel mill employed hundreds of people in these parts for over a hundred years. The coal used to make the steel came from local mines, and they also employed hundreds of people. The mines are closed, the steel mill has been shut down and the buildings demolished. Only two things remain: a nicely painted foundry kettle on a short rail road siding with a plaque commemorating the site, and a polluted bay full of lobsters that no one will eat. Although the area was famous for its deep mined coal, one person told me that he was a seaman on the CSL line, and that his ship sails regularly to Detroit to pick up and bring coal to the Sydney power plant. So, there isn’t much economic activity here. The area is populated by older people here who either do not work, or work out west and return once a month to be with their family. There are very few young people here. They have all moved on.

Many of the people that we talked with told us that their kids went to college and after they graduated couldn’t find a job. They left, most for Alberta or Saskatchewan to work in the oil fields. They make good money ($90 – $100 K per year). Those with higher skills and a family in Nova Scotia or Newfoundland commute: for example, they work 12 hour days for one month followed by two weeks off and a paid ticket to and from their home. At work they live in camps that provide room, board and laundry. Some people that we talked with do service work in the camps (room cleaning and manual labor) and leave here after Christmas and work the winter in the camps. They do not get tickets back and forth.

We left for Newfoundland on August 16, cruised the southern coast and visited the tiny and last French possession in North America, Saint Pierre in Miquelon Island. We crossed the Cabot Strait and are now moored in Louisbourg. Tomorrow, weather permitting; we will head south toward Halifax.

We have wonderful pictures that we would like to share with you, but no bandwidth to post them. We will bring our pictures up to date as soon as we can.

Thanks for checking in on us. I will post another log about Newfoundland as soon as I can.


Wishing you and your all the best.

Randy and Rebecca

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